Women of ambition

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

CAREERS: ‘Financial Times’columnist Mrs Moneypenny gives her top career tips for ambitious women


I have no time at all for people who think that life should be a meritocracy, that it should be about what you know rather than who you know. The truth is, if you want to achieve your goals in life, you need to be both good at what you do and good at building relationships with people who matter.

It is important to build a network. I know that many people, of both sexes, find this challenging. But women seem to find it more so than men, and, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, fail to cultivate enough of what the author describes as “relationship capital”. Some of us can’t find the time, and some of us don’t enjoy meeting new people and find ourselves resenting the time and effort that goes into staying in touch with them.


Do you get up in the morning and dread going to work? Do you feel that you add very little value in the work that you do? Do you look at your boss and think that you really don’t want their job? If the answer to any one of these is yes, you should think about doing something else.

Careers checks are needed at all stages, even when you are getting near to retirement. In any case, I would advocate a career adjustment rather than retirement – I hope to spend the last 15 years or so of my working life teaching. Even if you have saved plenty of money, I would encourage you to take a volunteer job.

Claiming that it is too late for something is the most frequently encountered hurdle of all. Never use that excuse. If you find yourself saying “it is too late”, you are almost certainly wrong.

Saying no is a life skill that is very important to master if you want to be successful. But you should always remember that it won’t be a pleasant experience, even when you have mastered it. Women have difficulty in saying no, and being able to do so effectively will help you up the career ladder as much as, if not more than, any other skill in your armoury.


The risks of having sex with anyone in a work environment, especially as you progress through your career and become better known and respected, are much higher for women than they are for men. This asymmetric risk is very acute – if it becomes public, he is seen as a bit of a womaniser; you are seen as someone whose judgment can be called into question.


Young women today are raised to believe that the sky is the limit. I admire ambition, and I believe that women should be encouraged to be ambitious from an early age. But to grow up thinking (and being encouraged to think) that it is perfectly possible to be the CEO of a large public company/brilliant brain surgeon/concert violinist, or whatever, and achieve this while securing and maintaining a gorgeous husband, having an amazing sex life, conceiving and raising perfectly balanced children, and still have time to see your girlfriends and your parents, get to the hairdresser and have your nails done, and finally to your Pilates classes, is to be severely deluded.

Okay, this is the deal. Your time is a scarce resource. How you allocate it is central to how successful your career will be. If you take on board all the other things that you need to do in order to build a successful career – including the right skills and experience, the right network, the financial understanding – it is pretty unlikely that you are going to have time for much else.

There are three reasons why I think that trying to “have it all” will put the brakes on your career.

The first is that doing anything well takes focus. When you are trying to build a successful career, focus is really, really important.

The second is the sheer exhaustion and disappointment that will come with attempting the impossible.

The third – which seems to be specific to women – is that if you try to balance a lot of competing demands for your time, the message you may give out (whether or not you realise it) is that you are not committed to any of them.


Here we are in 2012, and women still bear the burden of responsibility for the lion’s share of domestic work – and this is even the case where both parents are working.

Lack of sleep can destroy energy and the ability to focus on the big picture more effectively than anything else. I recently counselled a member of my team who was doing brilliantly at work, but who failed to realise it, or take any pride in it, because she was just so tired.

Stay-at-home husbands are going to be more the norm in the future, especially for women who are headed for the top. Parenting pressures are most intense among mothers who have the most career potential. Because educated women tend to be particularly critical of their own parenting, they spend more time with their children than do their less well-educated counterparts.

I have known women move to a four-day week and then end up being paid for four days, but doing five. In fact, I have known managers who were thrilled when a mother returning to work asked for four days. They knew that a conscientious worker would give them five days’ work – and they would only have to pay for four.


Clothes matter. I would suggest from a very early age you should dress as through you expect to reach the top.

. . . AND HAIR

From Hilary Clinton’s address to Yale in 2001: “The most important thing I have to say to you today is that hair matters. This is a life lesson my family did not teach me. Wellesley and Yale Law School failed to instil [it too]. Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. Pay attention to your hair because everyone else will.”

If you have the kind of hair that looks so much better when someone else dries it, get it done before all important events. A more economical suggestion is to always carry a hairbrush with you.


Never, never go into a partnership – business or personal – with anyone if you do not know enough about the finances to ask the right questions.

As a woman, you should be saving money. Life expectancy, especially for women, is rocketing. We are all going to live longer than our mothers, and much longer than our grandmothers. How are we going to be able to afford this, if we don’t save money right from the start?

Whoever you work for, ask yourself some fundamental questions. Do you know what the financial performance of your employer is? Have you read its most recent annual report, including the notes – and do you understand most of it?


Individuals who are keen to climb the corporate ladder should gain not only an appreciation of, but a full grounding in finance, not just the standard balance sheet, or profit and loss, but a complete awareness of business levers. Retailing, from running a shop through to buying and merchandising a product area, requires all of these skills.

Women at the top are financially literate. And usually have the qualifications to match.


Be interesting to people. Make sure you are interesting yourself. To do this, you need to find what I call a “third dimension” to your life. This should be something that is not your main source of employment, or your family. Find something that you can engage in and make a meaningful contribution to, not something where you hover at the periphery.

Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women by Heather McGregor is published by Penguin, £16.99